The day before Barack Obama completed his first year in office, the new president received a startling rebuke. In an upset special election right wing Republican Scott Brown beat liberal Democrat Martha Coakley 52% to 47% for the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat. Exit polls showed that this wasn’t an endorsement of Brown’s conservative views, but a protest over what most saw as Obama’s softness toward Wall Street and the mess over his healthcare legislation.
In fact, poll results showed that most working class and union-member voters who went for Brown held opinions to the left of Obama on most issues. For example, a majority who voted for Brown said the Democrats were doing too much to help the banks and not enough to regulate business or create jobs. Most also thought his healthcare plan didn’t go far enough. The election saw both a low turnout and a switch by normally Democratic white working class voters who had backed Obama in 2008 to Brown. Not only is this a rejection of Obama’s record so far, it has cost him the 60th Democratic vote in the Senate he needs to defeat a Republican ‘filibuster’ over his healthcare plan and other legislation. The Democrats also fear this may foretell of further setbacks in the November Congressional elections.
The nearly universal judgement is that Obama’s first year in office has been pretty much a flop. Gone is the ‘hope’ that the ‘change’ he promised in 2008 is likely to amount to much. His healthcare plan, deeply flawed to begin with, is bogged down in Congress and may now face an even bigger hurtle. His economic stimulus package has not stopped the loss of jobs, now at more than 8 million since 2007. He seems to have put the unions’ other major priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), way on the back burner even after it had been gutted of the ‘card check’ procedure that was to make union organising easier. This after a loss of over three-quarters-of-a-million union members in 2009.
Most blame Obama’s failure to move his agenda on his willingness to leave things to Congress and his lack of forcefulness in confronting the Republicans. But there is more to it than that. Elections for national office in the US are largely funded by corporate money. Congress is also the focal point of the 40,000+ lobbyists who populate Washington. The insurance industry, for example, spent $380 million to defeat the ‘public option’ part of the healthcare act. The US Chamber of Commerce, for its part, coordinated an $80 million big business effort to defeat the ‘card check’ procedure in the EFCA. To match this sort of clout, the president would have had to do what presidents never do—mobilise a grassroots movement in the streets to counter capital’s undeniable power.
While Obama broke many American political norms by becoming the first black president he is, in the final analysis, a fairly conventional liberal. His days as a community organiser in working class Chicago were well behind him by 2008. His meteoric ascent from Chicago Democratic Party politics, never a very radical place to begin with, to the US Senate and then the presidency was greased with the same corporate money and political compromises as those who preceded him. The bulk of his presidential campaign funds came from the usual trio of Democratic donors: Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. Following the election, the spectacular campaign organisations that gave his election such a ‘movement’ character were laid to rest as the parade of old Clinton advisers, ex-Wall Streeters, and neoliberal economists took their place in the transition team and then the Treasury and the Whitehouse. As one New York Times columnist wrote just after the Massachusetts debacle, ‘The Obama administration is so overstocked with Goldman Sachs-Robert Rubin (formerly of Goldman Sachs and the Clinton administration—KM) alumni and tainted by its back-room healthcare deals with pharmaceutical and insurance companies that conservative politicians, Brown included, can masquerade shamelessly as the populist alternative.’
It is a virtual law of American politics that on those few occasions when some genuinely progressive legislation does pass, as in the 1930s and 1960s, it is always because of independent unruly mass movements disturbing the daily routines of American capitalism. The civil rights and antiwar movements and the rank and file labour upsurge of the 1960s produced that era’s anti-poverty programs, medical care for the poor and aged, civil rights and equal opportunity laws. In 2009 there was no such mass movement to counter the pressure from capital or the inertia of Congress and the Whitehouse. What about the unions whose leaders and members desperately wanted healthcare, labour law reform, and jobs?
The unions and their leaders had plenty of reason to act. In 2009 they lost enough members to the recession to wipe out the gains of the previous two years—almost a million in the private sector. Unemployment is still around 10%, more if you count discouraged job seekers. Poverty has grown. In the suburbs of the country’s major cities, where much of the white working class lives, it has grown by 25% since 2000. Mortgage defaults and housing foreclosures are at an all time high, now hitting the sort of middle income people who belong to unions. And, all measures are worse for African American working class people, who are the most likely to belong to a union. Yet, there has been no mobilisation, no repeat of the 2008 effort that put a quarter of a million people in the field to elect Obama.
Part of the reason lies in the generally narrow and conventional capitalist political practice that dominates much of the US labour leadership. Leo Gerard, the Canadian social democratic president of the United Steelworkers of America, for example, reflected the thinking of many of his even more capitalistically inclined American colleagues when he said that the reason there weren’t mass demonstrations of workers in the US as there have been in Europe was ‘because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up support of a half-dozen senators.’ Somehow the $40 million spent by the unions on ‘expert lobbying’ for EFCA didn’t seem to do the trick.
Much of the problem is the attachment and dependence of the trade union leadership on America’s oldest capitalist party, the Democratic Party. The unions spend millions of dollars electing Democrats at every level of the political system. Having done so, they have no organisational or institutional power over these politicians, who at the higher levels of state and national office receive far more from business. In any case, with rare exceptions these dedicated capitalist politicians see big business as the goose that lays the golden egg, not only for themselves but for the better off parts of the population from whence they spring and who vote in higher proportions than those farther down the social totem pole. To make matters worse, the Democratic Party is not really a party at all. It is a loose alliance of convenience among those who are less conservative than those in the somewhat better organised Republican Party. So, unions cannot simply strike a deal with party leaders, like Obama, but must attempt to influence many individuals. The relations they develop with these individual politicians, such as Obama, means that the labour leaders are generally unwilling to do things, like mass demonstrations, that might undermine the relationship. The most that top union leaders have done recently to criticise the president for not trying harder.
Another part of the problem, of course, is Obama’s (and the Democrat’s) attachment to America’s imperial mission in the world. This Nobel Peace Prize winner has no intention of reining in the current US military presence in some 150 countries or drastically cutting the ‘defence’ budget. To be sure, he is not a unilateralist like his predecessor, but his escalation of the war in Afghanistan and, indeed, his refusing to end ‘rendition’ and complete the closure of Guantanamo are indications that no fundamental change in the global role of the US that has prevailed since World War Two is likely to occur. The increased cost of war along with rising deficits and debt will further curb his domestic program as well.
Shortly before the ‘Massachusetts Massacre’ Obama began making populist noises. He has since promised to break up the financial giants, limiting the banks from the most extreme forms of speculation and risk. He has begun a tour of the Blue Collar Rust Belt telling workers he will fight for them. In one Ohio speech, a reporter counted the word ‘fight’ twenty times. His advisers are now telling him to sharpen his ‘message’ and leadership style. He has called back the main organiser of his 2008 victory to whip his Democratic troops into shape. It will take a lot more than improved message, style, and Congressional handholding to pull his presidency out of the ditch. While it is likely he will take a more populist stand in his State of the Union message on 27 January and perhaps even after. But it will take more than new posture or even his current legislative agenda to address the abysmal and declining condition of the American working class. In the end, of course, that is a job for the working class itself.